(image: The Castle Gate, Ferdinand Knab, 1881)
This is the room of grief.
It lies empty, hollowed-out. Fire burns in the grate, a paltry light that doesn’t hold the darkness at bay, or fill in the void of its owner’s absence. Flowers have wilted on the mantelpiece; there is a faint smell of bergamot turned sour–and a sketchpad lies open on the bed, the graceful curves of oranges and grapes trailing off, the still life forever unfinished.
There is someone in the room–walking softly, noiselessly on the Persian carpets. He stops by the bed; stares for a while, at the sketchpad. His face is tight, emotionless. He does not weep. What good would it do? It will not bring him back.
He ponders, for a while–on other ways, on other prices to pay. On what he would get back–a blank slate with no memories, a lich risen from the grave with only hollowness in its eyes. On a courtship, which would have to be done again, painstakingly and methodically: no longer the wild and intoxicating one of their youth, but a thing burdened with too much memory and too much knowledge. Ponders, too, on the possibility that… Samariel might choose another.
His hands have clenched into fists.
He has loved, and lost–one should always admit when one has lost, it saves so much time, so much struggling. When one is beaten–and he’s not, in so many ways. The House stands strong. Silverspires is a wrecked ruin; and there is little to prevent his schemes from coming to fruition. But in this…
He picks the sketchpad from the bed; carries it, as gently as it were his lover, to the fireplace–stands, for a fraction of a heartbeat, the time it takes to utter a scream–and throws it in.
The door opens, as he watches the paper burn. He doesn’t raise his head, or indicate in any way that he has seen the woman. But she has–she stops, with a visible effort–everything about her poised to flee.
“Clothilde,” Asmodeus says. “What a surprise to find you here.”
“My lord.” She’s old–not lined or wrinkled, but with the peculiar smooth agelessness that comes of frequenting a Fallen too closely. “I didn’t expect–” She stops then, raises a hand to her mouth. “Forgive me.”
“What is there to forgive?” Asmodeus shrugs. He moves away from the fireplace, where the papers are still burning. “I was done, in any case.”
As his hand rests on the door handle, she speaks up. “My lord. I have to ask–”
“What will happen?” Asmodeus smiles, an expression that is as sharp and as pleasant as broken glass.
“Samariel–” She stops, again.
“I haven’t forbidden you to speak his name.” She flinches as he inflects the word “forbidden”–it gives him such petty pleasure, to see her still afraid, twenty years on. How it’s so easy, so… permanent, to imprint fear on someone. “You’re wondering if the… protection he afforded you still holds.”
She flinches again, not watching him. She was in a cell, twenty years ago–and he was angrier, and blunter than he is now, with no time for finesse or subtlety. That is what she remembers–the monster that haunts her nightmares, the smiling Fallen with the knife in his hands, assessing how much of a threat she posed to the House.
It’s not that he regrets; or that he wouldn’t do it again–if he thought it necessary, it would happen the same way in a heartbeat, and Samariel isn’t here to save her anymore. But… times have changed. She has changed–pressed and moulded by her proximity to Samariel until she hardly remembers what it was, to be a loyalist–or that she ever gave in to the folly of challenging him. “I still have a use for you, after all. Work,” he says, with a tight smile that has nothing of joy. “You are, whether I like it or not, one of the House’s magicians.”
He says, softly, slowly–because things should be made clear, now, at the very beginning: “Uphir is dead. Ciseis is dead. It has been twenty years, and I am head of the House. Will you still defy me? You know how it would all end.” He brings his hands in front of him; extends finger after finger, like a pianist stretching for a concert. “You would make such sweet sounds, while I finally break you.”
The shudder that runs through her is a thrill in his bones–a hint of a pleasure he won’t allow himself. Cannot allow himself. She is loyal now, and he stands by his own. Always has.
She faces him–hands clenched, gaze raised to meet his–she’s trembling, and trying not to let it show–such joy it would be, in other circumstances. No matter. “My lord,” she says, again. “I am at your service.”
And perhaps, after all, he has broken her. Not every crack is visible; not everything leads to a gibbering wreck seated in the emptiness of cells. Sometimes, screams are stuck inside like broken shards of bone–rubbing against throat tissues until every word comes out flecked with blood.